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Based on a true story that shocked the nation in 1965, the film recounts one of the most shocking crimes ever committed against a single victim. Sylvia and Jennie Fae Likens, the two daughters of traveling carnival workers are left for an extended stay at the Indianapolis home of single mother Gertrude Baniszewski and her six children. Times are tough, and Gertrude's financial needs cause her to make this arrangement before realizing how the burden will push her unstable nature to a breaking point. What transpires in the next three months is both riveting and horrific, leaving one child dead and the rest scarred for life. Written by
A non-fiction horror film, hard to watch but important
I attended the world premiere of "An American Crime" at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Among the several decidedly downbeat films I saw this past week, this one was by far the hardest to watch. But something about it is compelling, like craning your neck to see what horrors can be spotted at the scene of a car crash. You know it can't be anything pretty, yet you can't take your eyes off it. Perhaps it was knowing that the film is, in fact, based on a true story. The opening courtroom scenes and disclaimer that "actual transcripts" were used make that clear. There's something about a "true crime" drama that triggers a desire to sit through whatever terrifying images lie ahead. And the images conjured up here are bone-chilling.
In 1965, Betty Likens (Romy Rosemont) and her husband Lester (Nick Searcy) decided it was best to leave their two daughters with a neighbor while they went off with a traveling carnival. So Sylvia Likens (Ellen Page) and her sister Jennie Fae (Hayley McFarland) settled in with the Baniszewski clan. And what a clan it was. Mother Gertrude (Catherine Keener) already had five of her own in tow, and now she added two more. What happened then, well documented in the record, is now played out for us with horrifying realism.
This is Keener and Page's film, despite the large ensemble cast assembled for the story. And both actors create frighteningly devastating portrayals of characters we still can't quite believe really endured these horrors. Mommie Dearest doesn't hold a candle to Keener's Gertrude, and Page is as heartbreaking as any victim I've seen in modern cinema. Both turn in award-winning performances that left me with chills.
In addition to the numerous family members, an assortment of school chums has the opportunity to get involved in some way. Coy Hubbard (Jeremy Sumpter) is the boyfriend of one of the Baniszewski brood. Known to most from 2003's "Peter Pan," we can't help but feel that he will be the hero here. Teddy Lewis (Michael Welch), is an enigma from the start. One of our most prolific yet underrated young actors today, Welch is perfectly cast as the boy whose blood runs hot or cold depending on the prevailing winds. Other notables include The West Wing's Bradley Whitford as prosecutor Leroy K. New.
This is a period piece set in the mid-60s, and the costumes, sets, and palette of colors effectively evokes that era to a T. Much of the film's look can be attributed to the cinematography of Byron Shah, who had two films here at Sundance (his "The Go-Getter" was one of my favorite film' at this year's festival).
"An American Crime" is not for everyone. It's a horror film that isn't a work of fiction. If it was from the hand of Stephen King it would be scary and delicious. Instead it's scary and nauseating. Yet it deserves the label "important," because the subject matter is worthy of discussion. And that's because the horrors exposed in this film are still occurring today. That's the real crime.
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